It’s the Fourth of July, which means that although today is a work day in Canada, I have to take time to watch Jaws. There is nothing about Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller that is particularly patriotic, but much of the plot’s significant action takes place during or sometime close to July 4. And since I make a point to watch the film at least once a year, July 4 seems like the best time.
My love for Jaws goes all the way back to my pre-literate days. I knew how to operate a Betamax VCR before I could read, and one of my favourite movies to watch was this one. There are a lot of things for a little kid to like in it: a big, mystifying creature that was also a real animal with an encyclopedia article; a high-stakes adventure at sea with three very different men; gore. And even though I watched it alone plenty of times, watching it with my parents was just as fun: they took advantage of the film as a teachable moment, using it to educate me about special effects and therefore, the difference between fiction and reality. One of my earliest memories of Jaws was the contradiction between dread at the story’s events, and delight at the film’s history. I knew that Bruce the Shark wasn’t real. I knew he didn’t even really work half the time. I knew that Richard Dreyfuss wasn’t in any serious danger. And yet, I felt a lovely shiver of fear watching him wait in the cage beneath the waves, only a few thin ribs of aluminum between him and certain death.
Years later, I still feel that shiver, but I also notice other elements that make me appreciate the film more. I now understand how difficult it can be for filmmakers to establish a sense of place like Amity, or functional family dynamics like that between Chief Brody, his wife and children. And following events like Hurricane Katrina and the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, I understand Mayor Vaughan’s cowardice and dishonesty for what it is: completely expected. All of these things jump right off the screen and into your gut, sometimes bypassing your brain. One of Spielberg’s failures in recent years has been his inability to accomplish this same jump in movies like War of the Worlds or even Jurassic Park.
Essays and articles aplenty have been written about Spielberg’s films and their history. Many of them acknowledge and celebrate what some science fiction fans call the “sensawunda,” or sense of wonder that permeates his films like an Abrams lens flare. And it’s true: Spielberg’s camera opens wider than the human eye does, and seeing more revels in what’s been there all along, from the patterns of dirt on a cowboy boot to the corkscrew twist of a child’s sleeping body.
But what makes that sense of wonder happen is an accompanying and equally powerful sense of anxiety. In Jaws that anxiety persists on a variety of levels: the small town community makes all of its money in the summer, and is anxious about closing the beaches; Brody is anxious as the new chief of police; his family is anxious about becoming “real islanders”; Quint hides his anxiety about the events aboard the Indianapolis…there’s a whole host of existential terrors in play long before the shark even shows up. (In fact, the only person who isn’t scared is Hooper: he’s the privileged son of a blue-blooded family and acts like it, and we enjoy his arrogance and affectations because he’s on the side of good and because his opinions are backed by hard science.)
When the shark does finally show up, it happens in painfully slow stages that only deepen that sense of dread. (Much of this is related to delays in production due to Bruce not really working as planned. If he had, the shark wouldn’t have been signified by yellow barrels or dorsal fins.) It’s the knowledge that he’s out there, waiting, that heightens things. And there’s also brilliant exposition to help us understand the threat: Brody briefly pages through a big, glossy book on sharks that explains why they’re attracted to the erratic splashing of swimmers, and it’s basically all you need to know. Then later, we watch Hooper pick up a tooth as long as his thumb, and we see the shark pull a whole dock apart without ever seeing the shark. We watch fountains of blood erupt from Alex Kintner’s body, and see a severed leg drift to the bottom of the pond, but we still don’t see the shark until it rears up and says hello to Brody’s chum line. Having witnessed those other more hidden displays of power, we believe in the shark’s ability to utterly destroy the Orca, and forget that sharks don’t really go after boats, or have anything resembling a memory bank that might store ideas for revenge.
The film also gets scarier as its action grows slower. Its first half moves like lightning: Brody is constantly on the move, always engaged in conversation, forever having his sentences interrupted by a new stream of facts that only further tangle his situation. Even the lazy scenes at the beach feature brief cuts and vertiginous Hitchcock shots. There’s a sense of movement and purpose bolstered by Hooper’s snappy, sarcastic exposition. Again and again we hear about sharks and how strange this one is and how stupid humans are to try hunting it, but only in brief asides. There’s no big expository dance number telling you what made this shark what it is, or describing the population demographics of Amity, or explaining why Brody left New York for such a tiny town. It’s just little things, like Brody drunkenly complaining about walking his kids to school in the city, or his assistant bothering him about nine-year-olds learning karate, or Hooper telling Vaughan that yes, that cartoon rendition of a shark on the local billboard is realistic in terms of scale.
By contrast, the second half is almost unrecognizably slow. Unlike most of the blockbusters that followed this first summer wide release, the action is more mannered and thoughtful as events draw to a close than when they begin. The men stare out at the sea for long, silent moments. They have time for small talk and getting to know each other. They pause and quietly acknowledge how doomed they are as the ship begins to sink. Even Hooper’s technology fails, and the shark dies because Brody scores a lucky shot.
With all that said, what makes Jaws work (and what still makes it work, years later) is that it’s a good story told simply. The film doesn’t really seem to know how good it is, simply because it’s trying so hard. The same can’t really be said about Spielberg’s later work, which is living up to a grand legacy. Jaws was Spielberg’s first cinema feature, and it was nominated for Best Picture. (It won in other technical categories.) That’s a huge burden to carry as an artist, and it shows in his later work: the scales of the stories keep growing, but the humanity of the characters fails to grow along with them. You need big personalities to fight big threats like dinosaurs or Martians, and Spielberg’s latter-day adventure films are lacking in that department. They’re full of people who are all too likeable: the scientists don’t use enough syllables, the drinkers aren’t drunk enough, the innocent are never victims.
Consider E.T. or Close Encounters, movies about basically friendly aliens with bizarrely close relationships to human children. Both are fundamentally “sensawunda” films wrapped in cuddly fleece, with everybody coming home safe in the end. But they both have deeply scary moments that make you understand the peril the main characters are in at a visceral level. The aliens play hell with Barry’s mother before stealing him from his home through a dog-door in Close Encounters and then a few years later Elliott’s mom experiences the same trauma at the hands of her own government when men in haz-mat suits invade her home and isolate it (and her) from help. It’s unsettling and creepy and it works wonderfully hard at making the denouement of each film all the sweeter.
I write this knowing that Spielberg’s latest adventure/action/thriller/epic is out in 2013, and I’m really hoping for a return to more narrowly-focused filmmaking from him. I want small-scale stuff that really makes me feel something. Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women…